Thursday, March 6, 2014

Review: Unleashing the Second American Century

I'm pleased to report that the picture of U.S. prospects presented in Joel Kurtzman's Unleashing the Second American Century: Four Forces for Economic Dominance is not only highly optimistic but also considerably convincing. Kurtzman, a senior fellow at the Milken Institute, highlights this quartet of factors: the U.S. has enormous creativity, manifested saliently in tech development and entrepreneurship; it has enormous energy resources, including natural gas now being tapped on an unprecedented scale; its capital reserves are gigantic too, notably in the huge cash piles accumulated by companies in recent years; and, contrary to claims that "we don't make anything here anymore," the country is having a manufacturing renaissance, with factories returning and 3D printing coming online.

Of course, there are counterpoints and problems one could raise. The environmental benefits (or lack thereof) of natural gas are hotly debated. Powerful technologies can harm as well as help. Capital reserves count for little if banks aren't lending and people aren't working. Still, Kurtzman compiles a lot of information that suggests that good news about America has been overlooked or distorted while much media and public focus has been on America's downsides, including its political dysfunctions. In the course of the book, he travels through some interesting geography, strolling the "innovation corridor" around Cambridge, Mass., and driving a Tesla to a Bay Area virtual reality demo and more.

Kurtzman argues that an economic boom is already under way (which also means that if he's wrong, it should be evident soon enough). "The American economy began to gather speed in 2013," he writes. "In my view, as people begin to notice that jobs are becoming more plentiful, money is less tight, and home prices are improving, they will become more positive, if not outright optimistic, about the future." If they read this excellent book, they may become yet more so.

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